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Unheralded Pitchers Can Play Hero At Triple-A National Championship

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The 2017 edition of the game will be played in Moosic, Pa., home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. John-Manuel So naturally, those two teams—the International League winner, Scranton, and the Chihuahuas, winners of the Pacific Coast League—are playing for this year’s Triple-A title game, scheduled for Tuesday night at Auto Zone Park in downtown Memphis.

The Triple-A title game is played in the midst of major league pennant races, so it’s not front-and-center in the baseball world, but it has built a nice history, including with some prominent prospects coming through the game. Past MVPs have included Jeremy Hellickson, who got the start and won for Triple-A Durham in 2009, and A.J. Pollock, MVP for Reno’s 2012 winning club in a game in Durham.

Last year in El Paso, Chris Devenski took center stage with seven scoreless innings in Fresno’s 7-0 victory. Devenski wasn’t considered a great prospect previously but made a statement with a fastball up to 94 mph and a plus changeup in his performance, and he’s spent 2016 as one of the most consistent pieces in Houston’s bullpen.

Young pitchers are potential heroes for Tuesday’s game as well, with lefthander Jordan Montgomery taking the mound for Scranton while Walker Lockett will start for El Paso.

Montgomery, 23, was outstanding after his promotion from Double-A to Scranton, going 5-1, 0.97 with a 29-inning scoreless streak. The former South Carolina ace, a fourth-round pick in 2014, is 14-5, 2.13 overall this season but is coming off a poor start in Gwinnett in the IL’s Governor’s Cup finals. But for every young prospect in this kind of game, there’s a sage veteran around to contribute as well.

"I just got out of rhythm and couldn’t make the adjustment that I needed to make,” Montgomery said. "As soon as I got in the dugout, Phil Coke was there and just told me I had to learn from it and move on. He helped me realize what I had not done and just helped me get re-focused for this game.”

Coke, 34, has pitched just three big league games this season but has logged 70 innings for the RailRiders, whose 91-52 regular season record was the best in the minors this season. Scranton has overcome a wave of promotions to New York, from catcher Gary Sanchez, outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Tyler Austin to veterans such as Donovan Solano, who had been hitting and playing third for manager Al Pedrique.

Instead, Pedrique has outfielder Clint Frazier, the team’s top prospect who nonetheless has struggled (.228/.278/.396, 3 HR) in 25 games with Scranton, as well as Mike Ford, the nondrafted free agent out of Princeton who will make his Triple-A debut in this game as the DH.

El Paso went just 73-70 while winning the PCL’s Pacific Conference’s South division, but the Chihuahuas have one advantage over Scranton. While the RailRiders have had to keep adjusting their roster, the Chihuahuas have been kept intact by the parent Padres, who didn’t add anyone significant at the Sept. 1 40-man roster expansion.

So catcher Austin Hedges (.326/.353/.597, 21 HR) has stuck around to hit and help lead the pitching staff, earning praise from pitching coach Bronswell Patrick for his handling of the team’s arms. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe (.306/.336/.557, 30 HR, 22 SB), the PCL’s MVP, has remained, as has center fielder deluxe Manuel Margot (.304/.351/.426, 30 SB) and second baseman Carlos Asuaje (.321/.378/.473).

The biggest changes for El Paso have been on the mound, where Tuesday night’s starter and the team’s playoff closer both started the year in low Class A Fort Wayne—as roommates.

Righthander Walker Lockett, a 6-foot-6 Florida native whom teammate Derek Eitel nonetheless has nicknamed "Big Tex,” made his way through four levels this season and has pitched more than 170 innings overall on the season. The sinkerballer said he’s feeling fine despite the workload and may piggy-back Tuesday with hard-throwing Dinelson Lamet, who Patrick said has hit 98 mph with his fastball while also throwing a power breaking ball.

Meanwhile, Lockett’s Fort Wayne roommate, Phil Maton, also has made his way to Memphis. The 20th-round pick in 2015 out of Louisiana Tech had a loud pro debut last year, striking out 58 in 33 innings at short-season Tri-City, but he’s made more believers in his encore. In 52 innings overall between the Tin Caps, Chihuahuas and high Class A Lake Elsinore, he has a 78-11 strikeout-walk ratio and has allowed just 32 hits. He’s picked up three playoff saves as well, including the clincher against Oklahoma City in the PCL finals as El Paso scored the winning run on a bunt single that took a crazy carom off the glove of Dodgers pitcher Lisalverto Bonilla.

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"It should be fun,” Lockett said of Tuesday’s game, which will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. ET. "We’re here; we may as well win it.”

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